Most common high school pursuits and interests can be fit fairly neatly into the academic or extracurricular categories. There are of course required courses that you take, and then there are the activities that you pursue outside of school hours, usually for your own enjoyment. You may play on a sports team, participate in a service project, or pursue visual arts. In most cases, even if your interests are somewhat untraditional, you can somehow package them in a way that neatly qualifies them as an extracurricular activity.
But what if your interests outside of school are more academic in nature? What if you’ve long been fascinated by the potential that carbon sequestration holds to limit the effects of climate change? What if you’re interested in the history of civil disobedience, or the ability of exams to measure actual comprehension? Whatever the case may be, there are some topics of interest that just don’t fit neatly into any extracurricular club or activity.
If you find yourself longing to pursue an interest such as this, you might consider conducting your own research project. While the concept may seem daunting at first, if you break it down into smaller, manageable tasks, you’ll quickly find that you probably already have the skills necessary to get started.
In this post, we will outline the process for conducting a long-term research project independently, including several avenues for pursuing recognition of your work and a step-by-step guide to completing your project. If you’re interested in pursuing an independent research project during high school, keep reading.
Why Pursue an Independent Research Project?
An independent research project is a great way to explore an area of interest that you otherwise would not get to learn about outside of school. By undertaking a research project on your own, not only will you explore a personal area of interest in more depth, but also you will demonstrate your dedication to pursuing knowledge for the sake of learning and your ability to work independently over a prolonged period.
Independent research projects, when conducted well and presented appropriately on a college application, can be a great advantage to you on your college admissions.
How to Choose a Topic for a Research Project
If you’re interested in pursuing a research project, you probably already have a topic in mind. In fact, the desire to conduct a research project usually stems from an existing interest, not just from the idea to conduct research on a vague or undetermined subject matter.
You should aim to narrow your research project to something that has some academic relevance. Perhaps it is related to your existing coursework. Maybe it reflects work you hope to pursue in the future, either academically or professionally. Try to fine-tune your project enough that you can easily explain the driving force behind it and its relevance to your future career path.
While you don’t need to decide on your exact topic or thesis quite yet, you should have a general idea of what your project will entail before moving forward.
Are There Existing Avenues for Undertaking a Research Project At Your School?
While you could certainly conduct your research project completely independently from your school, it is usually easier and more productive to conduct it in a way that is somehow connected to the rest of your schooling.
If the project is STEM-oriented, think about whether it would fit into a science fair or other STEM competition in which your school already competes. Also consider the AP Capstone Program if your school offers it. The second course in this sequence is AP Research, and it requires an in-depth research project as its culminating assessment.
If neither of these formal avenues are available, or neither provides a good fit, look into the possibility of pursuing your project as an independent study. If your school offers independent studies for credit, you can usually get information about them from your adviser. These types of projects usually require an extended application process that must be followed closely if you want to gain approval.
Finally, even if you can’t take advantage of one of the options above, if you have achieved advanced standing or enough credits, your school might still allow you to undertake an extended individual research project through some type of formal arrangement. Talk with a teacher, mentor, or adviser to learn what your options are. Clearly communicate your innate desire to learn more about this specific topic and be prepared to give some background on the issue that you want to research.
Steps for Undertaking the Research Project
1. Find a Mentor or Adviser
You will need someone to help guide and advise your work, so finding a willing and able mentor should be one of your first steps. This should ideally be a person with existing expertise in the subject area you wish to pursue. In the least, this person should share your interest and passion for the topic.
A teacher at your school who can also serve as an adviser is ideal, and may even be a requirement if you are formally pursuing the project as an independent study for credit. If that is not possible, you can certainly find a mentor somewhere else, even remotely if necessary.
Find out if your subject matter pertains to any local industries or companies, or if there are any scientists or professionals nearby who specialize in it. Consider checking the instructors of local summer programs or judges from past science fairs at your school.Also consider a professional who has written an article that interested you in the field.
Before you approach a mentor to request their help, familiarize yourself with his or her work. Be able to speak articulately about what has drawn you to him or her specifically. Put some thought into informed questions you might ask him or her. Be upfront about your needs if you are going to require any specific guidance or extended time or energy from your mentor. It might be difficult to find someone at first, but keep trying. Finding a mentor for your project is an important step.
2. Set a Timeline and Stick to It
Once you’ve found a mentor, you can get started laying out the timeline for your project. When you do this, list each step of your project as specifically as possible. These will include at a minimum: background research, writing a thesis statement, in depth research phase, outlining your final paper, drafting your paper, editing your paper, and publishing your paper.
You will probably have a completion date in mind, whether it’s required by the school or simply the end of the semester or school year. Work backwards from your completion date to set a realistic timeframe for each of these steps.
It helps to have a calendar displayed prominently with your deadlines listed clearly on it to keep you on track. Also be sure to put your deadlines into your school assignment book or Google calendar so that you can see how they overlap and affect your other commitments.
Show and Tell
The comment is often made with frustration in the teacher's room or during conferences that a student's writing is not focused; they are all
over the place. Often, this is simply because the student has not had the opportunity to have anyone explain to them how to take a broad topic and focus it into something manageable and interesting.
Using the metaphor of focusing a camera, model for students how to take a subject, find a topic within that subject, and finally find a subtopic within the topic to research. Using this metaphor, students easily grasp the concept of taking a broad subject and honing it down to a thoughtful, precise and workable subtopic.Biology research paper topics can be daunting. There are hundreds or possibly thousands of subjects to write about such as genetics, cancer and microbiology. Within these subjects are various topics. For instance, genetic coding, cancerous tumors or antibiotics might be subtopics for these subjects.
Focus in a tiny bit more and the student will discover subtopics leading to a research paper. For instance, biology research paper topics for these three models might be:
- Genetic Coding in Water Rats Found in Boston Harbor
- Desmoids Tumors in Young Women of Child-bearing Age
- Antibiotic Resistance: Microbiological Warfare Hits the Wall.
If we expect our students to master the art of writing research papers in college or university classrooms, teaching them to look at the development of a subject as being similar to focusing a camera lens from macro to micro exposure is an excellent tool. While biology research topics can still be assigned, demonstrating how these topics were created enables the student to see the process they will be expected to follow in the future.